New EPA Regulations, Cancer and the Number 3

Surprise! The utility industry is crying foul over the Environmental Protection Agency’s new emissions regulations.

On Wednesday EPA released its long-awaited proposed rule to regulate emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollutants from power plants. For months the usual suspects have been campaigning against these regulations in anticipation of their release, and these objections will no doubt grow now that the regs are “official.”

But, as you weigh the pros and cons of EPA’s first-ever national standard for emissions of mercury and other air toxics, you might consider these three statistics that I learned during a talk by Dan Schrag, a geochemist from Harvard University, who was visiting Duke’s Nicholas School yesterday.

Increased Life Expectancy for an American:

… From improving air quality in a city:  ~ 3 years *

… From curing all forms of cancer: ~ 3 years **

… From eliminating (ischemic) heart disease: ~ 3 years

The next time you read or hear complaints about air-quality regulations in the United States, you might think of the number “3” before responding.



*This number is derived from the Six-Cities Study — the seminal work that led to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particulate matter in 1997.

The first results of the Six-Cities Study were published in a 1993 paper by Douglas Dockery et al (“An Association between Air Pollution and Mortality in Six U.S. Cities,” New England Journal of Medicine), which documented a correlation between increased mortality in areas with more ambient air pollution. More reading on the Dockery study as well as a related one by the American Cancer Society (C. Arden Pope et al, 1995) can be found here [pdf].

Beginning in the 1970s, the Dockery et al study tracked more than 8,000 residents of six cities and compared causes of death with ambient pollution levels and controlling for some confounding factors. Similar results have been documented [pdf] elsewhere as well.

The three-year increase in life expectancy is based on a comparative analysis between cities with high levels and cities with low levels of fine particle pollution.

** Number is derived from incidence of cancer in population and number of lost person-years due to premature deaths. (Further reading.)

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